Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Botticelli to Braque: Highlighting the great and the familiar

Sandro Botticelli / The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ 

Sandro Botticelli was one of the most celebrated artists of the Early Renaissance, which was known as a golden age of artistic painting in Italy. His 1485 masterpiece, "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child," welcomes museum-goers to the "Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland" exhibition on display at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco through the end of May. 

Sir Henry Raeburn /
Skating on Duddingston Loch.
The depth and breadth of "Botticelli to Braque" spans more than 400 years of artistic production and the 55 paintings shown in the red-walled Herbst Exhibition Galleries highlight works by many great and familiar painters from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. In addition to Botticelli, the collection includes masterpieces by Diego Velázquez, Johannes Vermer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Sir Henry Raeburn, Frederic Edwin Church, Claude Monet, Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

The lender of these impressive works of art is the Scottish National Art Collection, which has linked three Edinburgh institutions that contributed to the show: the Scottish National Gallery, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

There is always a lot to learn and absorb from seeing any art exhibition, and I became fascinated from the very beginning of "Botticelli to Braque" after viewing "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child". Afterwards, I researched Botticelli's tempera and learned this: The Italian painter drew inspiration from the work of Filippo Lippi, and it's unusual because he painted his masterpiece on canvas not wood and the Christ Child was rarely portrayed asleep.

"This variation could be interpreted as a reminder of Christ's death," according to nationalgalleries.org, the National Galleries of Scotland's website. "His future suffering for Mankind may also be symbolized by the detailed plants and fruits. The red strawberries, for example, may refer to Christ's blood. They also complement the beautiful rose bower which forms an 'enclosed garden', a symbol of the Virgin derived from the Old Testament Song of Solomon."

Johannes Vermeer / Christ in the House
of Martha and Mary.
Meanwhile, of the 36 paintings by the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer that are known to still exist in the world, "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" is the largest one and the only one that illustrates a biblical subject. Vermeer is one of my favorite artists and I looked forward to seeing his contribution to the "Botticelli to Braque" exhibition. After all, any Vermeer is worth seeing.

Vermeer (1632-1675), who was regarded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, was known for painting quiet human interaction, and in "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" (ca. 1654-1655), he depicts the story of Saint Luke's Gospel (10:38-42) that tells of Christ's visit to the sister's house.

According to nationalgalleries.org, "Christ praised Mary's willingness to sit and listen to his teachings, unlike Martha who was preoccupied with housekeeping. The strong play of shadow and light, the characterization of the figures and broad handling of paint were probably inspired by the work of artists from Utrecht, who in turn were influenced by Caravaggio's art."

Rembrandt van Rijn /
Self portrait, aged 51.
When the "Botticelli to Braque" exhibition opened in March, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker wrote: "An art historian might plot many lines through the selection of paintings on view, tracing the secularization of subject matter, or the evolution of patronage. But the show's most entwining intellectual thread may be the very question of representational fidelity.

"Why, besides the clerical demand of compelling faith, did what we think of as realism matter so much that it brought forth prodigies of depiction such as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Diego Velazquez?"

Baker's conclusion: "Take any direction through "Botticelli to Braque" and prepare to be blindsided by artistic miracles."

Photos: Courtesy of nationalgalleries.org.


Friday, May 15, 2015

In celebration of reading and writing for a cause, a Berkeley library becomes a literary café for a day


Tomorrow, I'll be participating in the WriterCoach Connection's seventh annual Read-and-Write-a-Thon. Beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing for 10 consecutive hours, volunteers, students and supporters -- including yours truly -- will share their love of the written and spoken word in the Library at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. 

Imagine a library transformed into a literary café ... 

This will be my third Read-and-Write-a-Thon.
At around 9:20 a.m. Saturday morning, I'll be reading from The Children of Willesden Lane, a memoir of music, love and survival, written by Mona Golabek, which became a one-woman play that recently enjoyed a successful run at the Berkeley Rep earlier this year. 

A backstory ...

As many of you know, since 2013, I've been involved with WriterCoach Connection, a non-profit program now in its 15th year. I'm one of more than 700 volunteers working one-on-one with middle- and high-school kids. We are now coaching in 11 schools throughout the East Bay. It's a remarkable program, winning rave reviews from teachers as well from kids. 

This year, I have been working individually with a variety of seventh and eighth grade students at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. My students represent a microcosm of the school's student body -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic -- and of the city of Berkeley, too. It has been a uniquely rewarding experience to see my students become more critical thinkers and confident writers.

My goal as a writing coach is simple and straight-forward, yet heartfelt: to help strengthen a student's writing skills and help them develop their ideas. And, through the use of positive encouragement and showing care, I believe I am making a difference in each student's educational development.

We believe all students can discover the power and richness of their own voices and learn to communicate their ideas with clarity, confidence and pride. Most important to me is that WCC gives more than 2,200 students undivided, positive attention, and for many of those students, it's the only time they ever get that from an adult.

In my first Read-and-Write-a-Thon experience,
I read an essay by humorist Calvin Trillin.
This year marks my third year to participate in the Read-and-Write-a-Thon. Two years ago, I read from humorist Calvin Trillin and last year I chose a baseball essay by Roger Angell. The Read-and-Write-a-Thon is our major fundraiser of the year and helps bridges the gap between what the program costs and what we can raise from school budgets and grants. And this is where you can help:

I'm writing to ask if you might support me, our readers, and this wonderful program by sponsoring our Read-and-Write-a-Thon.

If you can help, please go to www.writercoachconnection.org, click on the Read-and-Write-a-Thon banner, and you'll land on our fundraising page.

Whatever you can give, thank you so much for keeping us going. Those 2,200 kids, my fellow volunteer coaches, and dozens of sainted English teachers thank you, too. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Stephen Curry: MVP season is summed up in passionate 'thank you' speech to his teammates, family and fans


Stephen Curry / A unique combination of talent and humility.

Watching Stephen Curry win the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award this week -- the league's highest honor -- reminded me of the values of shooting, screening, cutting and passing he's shown throughout what has been a truly remarkable season. Curry, who stars for the Golden State Warriors, my hometown team, was the best player on basketball's best team.

Curry, the Warriors' first MVP since Wilt Chamberlain won in 1960, is a sharpshooting guard on a team that won a league-best 67 of 82 regular season games and is 5-1 in the playoffs so far. He is part of a very deep and very well-coached team, the marquee player that Golden State has built its team around.

Curry's memorable season statistics were dazzling and reflected his value to his team. He was sixth in the league in scoring (23.8 points per game), sixth in assists (7.7 per game ), third in three-point shooting (44.3 percent), first in free-throw shooting (91.4 percent), and fourth in steals (2.04 per game).

At a press conference in an Oakland, Calif. ballroom in front of about 500 friends, family and teammates on Monday, the diminutive (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) Curry shared the lessons that perseverance, faith and confidence played. He took the time to thank each of his teammates individually in his MVP speech and choked up when he talked about his father, former NBA guard Dell Curry, as his role model.

Among the words which Curry's Warrior teammates used to describe him: genuine. And Steve Kerr, his coach, called Curry a unique combination of talent and humility. "The way he carries himself, his demeanor," said Kerr.

Curry said he would donate his MVP prize car to the East Oakland Youth Development Center.

Among the highlights of Curry's speech, which focused on the importance of team:

"We’ll remember this year no matter how it finishes, really.  But we have a huge goal in mind this year, and we’ll be able to talk about it for years to come.

"Every time we think of this moment we’ll talk about it and moments that hopefully will happen in a couple of months, it will all mean so much to us. How much sacrifice we’ve put into it, how much work, just the consistency that it takes to get to where we are.  It takes all 14 guys.  You can’t have one bad apple in this equation, and we don’t.

"So we’re truly grateful.  I’m grateful to have this team behind me.  This is not possible without you guys.  I want everybody to get a fingerprint on that so I can remember who I rolled with during this year, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

"All right.  I’ve been long‑winded, but this is the last part.  I’ve talked about faith, passion, and the drive with the guys that I’ve been around and the guys that surround me every single day.  But a part of that is having the will to succeed.  Knowing that you’ve put the work in and have the confidence to let it show.  What I tell people is be the best version of yourself in anything that you do.

"You don’t have to live anybody else’s story.  Sometimes people make it seem like you have to have certain prerequisites or a crazy life story in order to be successful in this world.  But the truth is you really don’t.  It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have or don’t have, what you lack or what you have too much of, but all you need to have is faith in God, an undying passion for what you do and what you choose to do in this life, and a relentless drive and the will to do whatever it takes to be successful in whatever you put your mind to."

Finally, after nearly 40 minutes, Curry summed up his speech by sharing a bit of advice and wisdom from the heart:

"Make sure you live in the moment and work your butt off every single day, and I hope I inspire people all around the world to just be themselves, be humble, and be grateful for all the blessings in your life.  I’m truly honored to be your MVP this year.  Thank you very much."

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Drought or not, our flowers continue to bloom and thrive


Sharing the beauty of our garden / a Queen Elizabeth rose.

Springtime means new growth for our rose bushes -- drought or no drought. Our Queen Elizabeth rose bush has been an early bloomer this year. Ditto for our First Prize roses. It's also the season for our irises and rhododendrons to bloom and thrive.

Calla lily / few as lovely.
As a caretaker and devoted photographer of nine rose bushes that shine brilliantly throughout much of the year in our backyard garden, relying on rain and a few hours of weekly watering via a water drip system, my appreciation for roses has grown exponentially over the 15-plus years I have resided in the foothills above Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Irises / the time for them to
bloom is spring.
Plus, there are few flowers as lovely as the calla lily, and we're blessed to welcome dozens of them every year to our quiet, east side garden from winter to early summer.

Roses have become an everyday part of my life, and as an amateur gardener -- especially because of the ongoing drought taking place throughout California -- celebrating Earth Day has taken on a greater meaning for me.

First Prize / shining brightly.
Yet, in photographing our roses and other flowers in our gardens -- and sharing them with my friends via my Facebook page -- I have gained a new appreciation for their colorful beauty and their fragrance, too.

If our gardens are a form of autobiography, as the author and gardener Sydney Eddison once suggested, I am happy to say that our flowers keep getting more photogenic. They ask for so little and, yet, give us so much in return.

Indeed, as it has been said, a healthy garden is a reflection of a healthy soul.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bruce Hornsby: Broadening his full range by exploring many winding roads on a wonderful music journey


Bruce Hornsby /Deftly swinging a tune from one style to another
without ever missing an internal beat.

Bruce Hornsby is an American singer and keyboardist who draws from a variety of musical traditions, among them rock, jazz, classical, bluegrass, hymns and folk, that shape his songwriting talent. The Virginia-born composer has explored songs with Southern themes about race, religion, judgement and tolerance -- even penning a song "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," that's a reference to a character from Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. 

An avid basketball fan, Hornsby is just as comfortable blending and re-working the melodies of legendary jam band Grateful Dead, whom he will sit in as a guest keyboardist during their 50th anniversary farewell concerts this summer, as he is paying homage to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. In addition to collaborating with the Grateful Dead, Hornsby's creative interest has also sparked working with Rickie Lee Jones, Ornette Coleman, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and Pat Metheny on various projects over the years as well as on his own in a career that has spanned two and one-half decades.

The spontaneity and creativity of Hornsby's live performances are loose and playful, and he welcomes requests from his audiences, which are collected before the start of each show and sit visible across the top of his Steinway & Sons grand piano.

Bruce Hornsby / Exploring and improving.impr
The 60-year-old Hornsby's solo performances, such as the one I attended last week in Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, offer him a limitless opportunity to challenge himself: through reworking originals, segueing songs into other songs, and blurring the lines of classical compositions and jazz standards.

Performing solo, as he did for two hours on a recent Wednesday evening in Berkeley, has allowed him to "recommit (himself) to the study of piano" and "take (his) piano playing to a whole new level."

"My standard line," Hornsby says of his solo concerts, "is: I'm not the vehicle for your nostalgic night out. But I will be kind."

These explorations and improvisations culminated in Hornsby's first entirely live solo piano album, entitled Solo Concerts, released in August 2014, which was given out to all ticket holders the night I saw him perform in Berkeley.

The 21 tracks which comprise the album were culled from solo concerts performed by Hornsby throughout the U.S. in 2012 and 2013. They bring together "disparate information from musical languages often thought to be opposed: Americana roots music, folk-pop, film scores and modern classical, what Hornsby calls an 'unholy alliance.'"

There are solo renditions of recognizable Hornsby chestnuts ("Mandolin Rain" and "The Valley Road") as well as boogie-woogie ("Preacher in the Ring"), a Spike Lee film score ("Song E {Hymn in E-Flat}") and modern classical with the "dissonance and expressive chromatics" of 20th century 12-tone experimental composers such as Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, as well as the American modernist Elliot Carter, Hungarian György Ligeti and Frenchman Olivier Messaien.

"There's often a bias in the rock or pop world against virtuosity," said Hornsby, in the program notes for his Cal Performances concert in Berkeley. "I understand that mindset: expression over virtuosity. But my feeling is, why not both?"

After all, it's not clinical, what Hornsby does as well and as enjoyable as anyone. His two-handed independence at the keyboard is really vibrant and emotional. It's what he calls the pursuit of the unattainable. And, yet, his solo concerts turn his audiences into adventurous music listeners.

That's the way it is.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images and © Kirk Stauffer Photography.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

High Style: Going window shopping through time

The manipulation of cloth: Charles James / "Tree" ball gown, 1955.

The masterworks of fashion have come together in "High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection" at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Walking through each exhibit room, gazing at each display, it's a bit like going window shopping through time.

"High Style" showcases women's fashions worn in America from 1910 to 1980 and it celebrates the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, one of America's earliest and --arguably -- most distinguished holdings of fashion design.

Colorful designs by Elsa Schiaparelli.
I had the opportunity to see this highly colorful exhibition, which debuted last month, on Easter Sunday. It features a variety of representative pieces: approximately 60 garments, ranging from ball gowns to sportswear; 30 costume accessories, such as shoes and hats, and related fashion sketches, by some of the 20th century's most important and influential American and European designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles James, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is the display of 25 pieces, including garments, muslins and sketches by fashion designer Charles James. In an interview with Fine Arts magazine, Jan Glier Reeder, the curator of "High Style" said of James: "Rather than merely a dressmaker, James was an artist and sculptor who chose the manipulation of cloth as his primary medium of expression.

"Conceiving his designs in the round, James masterfully translated two-dimensional cloth into dazzling three-dimensional shapes never before seen in the history of fashion. He developed an idiosyncratic process using architectural, mathematical, and engineering principles alongside an in-depth knowledge of the female form to build and mold his garments."

"High Style" runs through July 19 -- and, if you live in the Bay Area or will be visiting soon, I highly recommend you see it.

Photographs: By Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A sense of space: Thoughts on where I write

In a perfect world, I would have a garden shed reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw or a Key West cottage replete with cats like Ernest Hemingway in which to creatively write and do a little divining. Instead, I have our modest-but-comfortable 1927 California-style bungalow in the hills above the flatlands of Oakland's Dimond District, which has been my home since 1999.

While having a huge chunk of time to focus on writing would be great in that perfect world, finding a good rhythm while writing -- and a sense of space -- is something that challenges me all the time.

A winning combo /
My MacBook and a mug of French roast coffee.
Surrounded by the clamor of everyday life, I do most of my writing sitting at our dining room table. It's me and my MacBook. While there may be nothing special to this space which I reconfigure each day -- after all, it's not a dedicated room but a pop-up work space -- I am surrounded by a variety of photographs, artwork and family mementos. Best of all, when I write -- often during the morning hours -- there's always room at the table for a mug of my favorite French roast coffee. And, I usually have my iPhone and the national edition of The New York Times at arm's reach.

Sometimes, when I write, it's tempting to look out the dining room window that faces the cul-de-sac and do a little curative daydreaming while also observing and absorbing the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. I love hearing the noise of chirping birds that visit the big tree outside. Drawing open the dining room curtains just a little bit allows the sun to freely shine in. It's a bonus if there's a gentle breeze, too.

I like to listen to music and create an ambient soundtrack to fit my creative space. If I'm writing on a weekday between nine and noon, chances are good I'm connected via my iPad to the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program airing on KCRW.com.

While writing can be a sedentary experience, if I need a change of scenery, sometimes, I merely pick up my laptop and move into the living room and take up space either on the sofa facing the fireplace or plop down in my comfortable Ikea Poang chair.

At the end of the day, I pack up my MacBook and set the dining room table for dinner.

Photograph by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

As close to the bone as filmmaking gets: Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies"


A biography of cancer / First the book,
now the film
Imagine the problems that would be alleviated if a cure for cancer were found.

In the spirit of learning and understanding, last week my wife and I attended a screening of the new Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," a film by Barak Goodman, at the invitation of KQED, our PBS affiliate, in San Francisco.

The film, a three part, six-hour documentary, will debut next week from March 30-April 1 on PBS -- and I highly recommend you see it.

After all, convening dialogue in the pursuit of lifelong learning can only lead to a better understanding of our world, right?

We saw a 45-minute preview that included portions from all three parts, followed by an interview and a Q & A session with Barak Goodman. The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated film director reminded us how we are all impacted by cancer and noted how some of us will die because of the deadly disease.

"Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is based on physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which examines cancer with "a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective, and a biographer's passion."

Through Goodman's direction, the film tells the complete story of cancer, "from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern research institutions," according to the program's website. "At six hours, the film interweaves a sweeping historical narrative; with intimate stories about contemporary patients; and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, to the brink of lasting cures."


The film combines science and case studies with history -- more than 100 people were interviewed and 700 hours of film were produced over a two-year period -- and, after previewing "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," it's easy to see the influence filmmaker Ken Burns had on the project as executive producer. Call it the Ken Burns effect, if you will, of panning and zooming from still imagery and using lots of talking heads on camera to tell the story.

"There's a lot of Ken Burns stuff (techniques) in it," said Goodman. "While his finger prints are all over it, the really great thing about Ken is he gave us the space to make the film."

Much of the film took place at the The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and at the Charleston Area Medical center in Charleston, West Virginia.

The film tugs on a lot of heartstrings and emotions. "It was extremely emotionally challenging because we got very, very close to the patients we filmed, some of whom didn't survive their cancer," said Goodman.

In a PBS promo for the film, Burns said that "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is "about as close to the bone as filmmaking gets for me. Cancer has been a huge part of my life. There is never a moment in my awareness as a human being that I didn't know that something was desperately wrong with my mother, at 2 1/2 to 3 years. She was sick with cancer. She died when I was 11, almost 12 years old.

"The reason why I do what I do comes from this illness and this death and watching it  happen," he said.

After a 10-year struggle with the disease, Burns' mother died of breast cancer.

Cancer is a monumental and difficult but solvable problem, says Goodman. "We hope the series makes people hope; to not shy away from the disease."

To learn more:
http://video.pbs.org/program/story-cancer-emperor-all-maladies/

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Revisiting: A History of the World in 100 Objects, and the importance of protecting our past during troubled times

Talking points: If great art and architecture belongs to humanity, do we have a responsibility to save it during wartime? If so, should the recent barbaric destruction of Iraq's ancient artifacts by Islamic State militants be treated as a war crime?

What began with the shocking videos that went viral showing Islamic State militants destroying priceless Iraqi antiquities at a Mosul museum has escalated into the wholesale destruction of Iraq's heritage as ancient archeological sites in Nimrud and Hatra lay in ruins. Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city while Hatra dates to the first century B.C.

Reading about these recent disturbing events brought to mind a book I read a few years ago, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. It is a book which upon further review has given me a renewed appreciation for our past and made me realize why we should care about preserving it for future generations. 


From the handaxe to the credit card /
There's a lot we can learn through ordinary objects.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is based on the popular BBC Radio 4 series, and in the book the author "takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity" by using objects left behind by previous civilizations -- often accidentally -- and describes them as "prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them."

Imagine a book that is both an intellectual and visual feast, and allows you to travel back in time and across the globe to see how the human experience has shaped the world and been shaped by it over the past two million years.

In February 2012, I wrote about A History of the World in 100 Objects. 

In light of the tragic destruction of antiquities in Iraq, it is worth revisiting what I wrote three years ago so that we may appreciate the heritage of art and its humanity:


A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with the story of a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa, a relic that is between 1.8-2 million years old and is one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands. This hefty, 707-page book, which we recently checked out from our local public library, concludes with a story about an object from the modern, twenty-first century: a solar-powered lamp and charger manufactured in Shenzhen, Guandong, China, that is representative of the world we live in today.

A History of the World in 100 Objects /
Exploring world history from two million years ago to the present.

According to the book's dust jacket, Neil MacGregor's aim "is not simply to describe these remarkable things, but to show us their significance ~ how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency, or how an early Victorian tea set tells us about the impact of empire."

MacGregor, who has been the director of the British Museum since 2002, writes: "The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made -- all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. I've chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey -- from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum."

Through these 100 objects, MacGregor describes history as a kaleidoscope -- "shifting, interconnected, constantly surprising, and shaping our world today in ways that most of us have never imagined."

At the time of the book's publishing, Carol Vogel of the New York Times wrote: "These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior."

The British Museum / As I saw it in 2005.
During a 2005 spring vacation trip to London, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the British Museum. What's truly remarkable about this museum, replete with its Greek Revival facade and first opened to the public in 1759, is that its holdings do not including any paintings. However, what this museum does include is an impressive collection of antiquities. As it turned out, my visit to the British Museum was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent at a museum.

Among many things that stood out for me in the breadth of the museum's collections was seeing the Rosetta Stone up close and personal. Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, everyone crowded around, wanting to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone and photograph it.

The Rosetta Stone, found at el-Rashid, Egypt in 196 B.C., is the 33rd of 100 objects whose story is told by MacGregor and, among visitors to the museum, it is definitely a must-see attraction.

"Every day when I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum there are tour guides speaking every imaginable language addressing groups of visitors, all craning to see this object. It is on every visitor's itinerary, and, with the mummies, it's the most popular object in the British Museum," writes MacGregor.

The Rosetta Stone /
The most popular object in
the British Museum.
"Why? It's decidedly dull to look at -- a grey stone about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports," adds MacGregor. "The rough edges show that it's been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it's pretty dull too -- it's mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the Museum, appearances are deceptive."

MacGregor continues: "This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history -- the cracking of hieroglyphics."

What matters now, writes MacGregor, "is not what the stone says but that it says it three times in three different languages: in Classical Greek, the language of the Greek rules and the state administration, and then in two forms of ancient Egyptian: the everyday writing of the people (known as Demotic) and the priestly hieroglyphics which had for centuries baffled Europeans. It was the Rosetta Stone that changed all that; it dramatically opened up the entire world of ancient Egypt to scholarship."

What I find truly amazing after reading the chapter about the Rosetta Stone is that it survived unread through 2,000 years of various occupations, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Eventually, the 1798 Napoleon-led French military invasion of Egypt ("they wanted to cut the British route to India") yielded the Rosetta Stone. "The French seized the stone as a trophy of war, but it never made it back to Paris. With his fleet destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon himself returned to France, leaving the French army behind. In 1801, the French surrendered to the British and Egyptian generals. The terms of the Treaty of Alexandria included the handing over of antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone."

Soon, the stone found its way to Great Britain for good after its capture by the British Army where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III. The Rosetta Stone has been displayed in the public domain at the British Museum since 1802.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is freely available for the world's scholars to see. Ironically, it was a French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, who finally cracked the stone's hieroglyphics in 1822. For the British Museum's many visitors, who wait patiently like I did on a Sunday afternoon in March 2005 for a fleeting glimpse, seeing the Rosetta Stone is a thrill of a lifetime and a chance opportunity to photograph it for posterity.

Photographs of the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone by Michael Dickens, copyright 2005. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2015 Question Time: Let's ask the "Memo" blogger


Question Time / Ask the Blogger
As many of you know, I enjoy the art of conversation with my friends on Facebook. I find it to be a great way to get to know this diverse and inclusive group of people better, and I can do it either from the convenience of home or while sipping a cup of coffee at a favorite café.

If you think about it, what's not to like about enjoying a cup of French roast coffee, creating an ambient music soundtrack to fill my chat room, and catching up on the world events around me that my Facebook newsfeed sees fit for me to read? And, best of all, I can learn what's on the minds of my friends near and far.

Add to this mix, I occasionally text with a select group of friends via WhatsApp and, sometimes, I like to share conversation by using Skype video, too. It's the kind of multi-tasking I truly enjoy and derive a tremendous amount of benefit from.

Often, I am asked a lot of personal questions, especially by newer friends who want to get to know me better -- and I'm cool about this. Some of these questions are about my blog or other writing projects I may be engaged in at the time. Other times, I'm asked about what I majored in at university (the answer: American History) and, especially from friends where English is their second or third languages, they ask me about how to improve their English-language conversation and writing skills. I don't mind because I'm usually the one asking a lot of questions of my friends. I guess, it's the natural reporter's instinct in me. And, it's only fair to turn the tables every once in a while.

So, here are my answers to five questions I'm often asked:

What book is currently on my bedside table?
The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen tells the inspirational true story of Lisa Jura, a child prodigy pianist ---- and Golabek's mother -- who escaped Nazi-controlled Vienna for London on the famed Kindertransport during World War II. It's a coming-of-age story of one young girl's survival and how music saved her life. I began reading this wonderful book after seeing Golabek star in her one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane last month at the Berkeley Rep Theatre -- and I haven't been able to put it down. 

What is an unforgettable place I've travelled to in the past year?
In the past calendar year, my out of Bay Area travel has been limited to a summer trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., and two visits to Seattle -- Labor Day weekend and Christmas. I love visiting both cities. If I could re-phrase the question to "An unforgettable place I'll be traveling to in the next year is," I would definitely say my upcoming trip in mid-June to Vancouver, B.C. to see the U.S. women's national football (soccer) team face Nigeria in the 2015 Women's World Cup. I've visited Vancouver several times over the past 20 years -- including a week's stay during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games-- and I love walking through Stanley Park and shopping and dining on Granville Island. 

What are my favorite comfort clothes?
A pair of Land's End traditional fit medium indigo blue jeans, Uniqlo black long-sleeve t-shirt, a Land's End half-zip black fleece top and a pair of classic Stan Smith Adidas sneakers. Sometimes, I'll switch out and wear navy blue instead of black for the long-sleeve t-shirt and half-zip fleece, but I think you get the picture of what I love to wear: comfortable casual clothes.

What is my favorite guilty-pleasure snack food?
My favorite go-to guilty-pleasure snack food that always puts a smile on my face is: Chicago Mix popcorn from Trader Joe's. For those not familiar, Chicago Mix is part salty cheese-flavored popcorn, part classic caramel-flavored popcorn. Throw them together and mix 'em up and you've got one great guilty-pleasure snack food that tastes wonderful.

What kind of music always puts me in a good mood?
I love to listen to music by Pink Martini. This Portland, Ore.-based "little orchestra" is fronted by bandleader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale and it features the vocalists China Forbes and Storm Large. The band's music crosses many genres, including: classical, latin, jazz and classic pop. I've seen Pink Martini perform in concert here in the Bay Area on numerous occasions and their shows are like urban music travelogues. A typical concert includes songs sung in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Turkish, among many. As an aside, another reason I like Pink Martini is because they are supportive of liberal political causes such as: civil rights, affordable housing, the environment, libraries, parks, education and public broadcasting.